Chattanooga mayor bets on long-term change in new plan for city

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly campaigned on the promise he would do what was best for the future of the city without an ambition to parlay his position for higher political office.

His plan for Chattanooga's future, to be released Thursday, appears to continue his pledge, banking largely on long-term investments and changing systems as opposed to short-term wins he could campaign on in three years.

Kelly's One Chattanooga plan highlights seven priorities for the future - access to early learning, economic vitality for the Black community, affordable housing, improving infrastructure, making the city a competitive regional economy, improving public health and making government efficient and effective.

The plan focuses on long-term solutions rather than putting a coat of paint or Band-Aids over existing problems, Kelly said.

"There are times when a coat of paint and a Band-Aid are entirely appropriate and important," Kelly told the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday afternoon. "But the idea here is rather than constantly running through boxes of Band-Aids - which is, I think, what we got in the habit of doing - let's first let's really prioritize structural change."

The mayor will present the vision Thursday afternoon during the annual State of the City ceremony. The plan acts as a guiding framework for decision-making rather than an itemized list of projects.

"This is not an overtly political document. This is about, sort of, deep and lasting change, rather than sort of a rah-rah political pitch," Kelly said.

While the One Chattanooga plan will affect the city's budget, the administration does not plan to raise taxes on residents. Kelly said this can be accomplished, in part, because of federal money coming to the city from the American Rescue Plan passed by Democrats in Congress and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, as well as inheriting a small budget surplus from the administration of his predecessor, Andy Berke.

The mayor said he is working on motivating local philanthropic organizations to co-invest in some of these projects, too, which would ease costs when the federal money runs out.

"Chattanooga is blessed to have a really, really outsized and forward-thinking philanthropic community with a lot of assets under management that could do a lot more impact investing," Kelly said. "That is to say, direct investing from an endowment rather than just grant-making."

In an effort to make Chattanooga more attractive to companies paying living-wage jobs, the administration plans to improve workforce development, make housing more affordable and improve public transportation infrastructure.

Building a universal path to early education will require federal help, Kelly said, due to the amount of capital it will take. Other pieces of the mayor's plan rely more on refocusing the intentions of the city.

Various departments within the city are creating measurable indicators of success based on the plan.

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Some of the pieces that will play key roles in achieving Kelly's broad goals are already in place a year into his administration, such as creating the Office of Community Health headed by Mary Lambert.

In March, Kelly announced plans for a $100 million affordable housing initiative over five years, which includes $33 million in seed money from the city. The project will involve public-private partnerships with nonprofit organizations, banks and other groups to expand the offerings of affordable housing.

"The city still has a tremendous amount of surplus land that we can put into circulation, and we will," Kelly said. "I don't know why the Berke administration never converted a piece of property under the land bank, but they didn't. But we will."

Addressing crime - the number of nonfatal shootings in the city increased more than 57% between 2019 and 2021 - is not an explicit goal in the plan, though the administration believes the goals laid will work upstream to curb crime, such as providing more workforce opportunities and improving public health.

The administration trusts Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy to lead the force and lean into community policing, Kelly said.

"An element of this plan wouldn't say, you know, 'Arrest the bad actors.' We're going to do that anyway," the mayor said.

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There is not a comparable city that has achieved Chattanooga's plans for improving public transportation, Kelly said. The Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority has aging infrastructure and low ridership, the mayor said, but there are opportunities with the emergence and improvement of automation and electrification technologies.

"I don't think there's a city out there doing it yet, because I think this is a place where Chattanooga can probably lead and innovate. In other words, I think it's something we're going to have to invent ourselves," Kelly said.

The Thursday afternoon State of the City presentation will look different from previous years, with Kelly being joined on stage by other city officials for a conversation about the plan, as well as Ben McAdams, who has served as a Utah lawmaker, mayor of Salt Lake County and member of Congress.

The event begins at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Tivoli Theatre.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.